At the end of October 2016, Brian Kennedy left his post as CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. Mary McEachron, the Buck’s chief administrative officer and general counsel, followed him out the door. Were they pushed or did they jump? More on that in a bit.
Nature abhors a vacuum, so the Buck Center acted quickly to fill Kennedy’s spot, signing Dr. Eric Verdin, an associate director from San Francisco-based Gladstone Institute, to honcho the independent Novato nonprofit research center. That deal lends insight into how things get done up on the hill.
At the same time, the Buck announced that some members of its board of directors had decided to donate $10 million to the institute, the largest single donation in the history of the center.
Prior to the departure of Kennedy and McEachron, the Buck had been flirting with Gladstone over fashioning a partnership. Gladstone is a successful independent research center that works across a wide range of medical study. Neither Gladstone nor the Buck have given specifics about the nature of the agreement that was discussed or why it was scrapped.
In a phone interview, Jim Edgar, a long-time Buck board member downplayed both the talks with Gladstone and the failure to fashion a deal: “We’re always talking to a wide variety of organizations about working together.”
Edgar’s observation is backed up by Chris Stewart, CEO of the North Bay Life Science Alliance. “If your center isn’t linked to a university, finances become more difficult,” he says. “Independent centers like the Buck are always looking to align themselves with other organizations.”
The Buck was founded in 1999 after a years-long battle over whether it could be built at all. The world-renowned center focuses solely on the aging process and is funded by an annual donation from the Leonard and Beryl Buck Foundation, a court supervised trust, as well as federal and private foundation grants and contributions. In recent years, federal cash has dried up a bit, though Edgar says the Buck is in good shape. “We’ve gotten better at obtaining grants—and there are more grants out there now.”
According to Edgar, the departure of Kennedy and McEachron had nothing to do with the proposed Gladstone deal.
“That’s horses**t,” says Gary Giacomini, a former Marin County supervisor and a partner at Hanson Bridgett. Giacomini, along with McEachron, was a driving force behind founding the Buck as well as the construction of the Novato campus. “Both Brian and Mary were against the merger the board wanted to do with Gladstone, and Brian was fired. Mary would have been allowed to stay if she agreed to not talk about Gladstone and go along with the deal, but she believed the deal would have broken the confidence of the original Buck agreement.”
Giacomini worked with McEachron at Hanson Bridgett and remains close to her as well as others at the Buck.
Neither Kennedy nor McEachron responded to requests for comment from NorthBay biz.
This brings us to how Verdin landed at the Buck. Verdin had his own 20-person lab with Gladstone, was familiar with the talks between the two organizations and he was ready for a change. In an interview with NorthBay biz, Verdin said he approached the Buck after partnership talks broke down. At the time, he was also in talks for a position in Denmark.
Verdin, who’s bringing some of his staff to the Buck, said that contacts at the Buck asked him what it would take to bring him to Novato? With time running out on the position in Europe (and using that timing as leverage), Verdin made it clear that the Buck board need to raise some capital to demonstrate its dedication to moving the aging institute to the next level.
A small group of the directors put together $10 million to show Verdin that it was serious. “I’m told there will be more money from the board,” he says.
With the board kicking in the cash, Verdin was satisfied and signed the deal. His responsibility is now to take the model he observed at Gladstone and apply it at the Buck. “Gladstone was incredibly well-run as far as business development and fundraising, and I’m supposed to create a replica,” he says.
In an attempt to kick off the year in the proper spirit, I end with humor from a Marin business. On the door greeting its customers, The Flatiron tavern had this message: “Organic Tantric Yoga Cancelled! Advanced Beer Drinking in Session. Happy Hour 3-6.”
Turns out you can’t make this stuff up.
Bill Meagher is a contributing editor at NorthBay biz and an associate editor in the West Coast office of The Deal/The Street, a wall street-based financial digital news outlet. He wishes you a profitable and joyous New Year.
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